Where We’re Wrong About The 80–20 Rule

Almost everyone is familiar with the Pareto principle, named after the economist Wilfredo Pareto, which says that 20% of the inputs translate into 80% of the results. This applies to a huge number of situations, which you can see talked about in more detail here, here, and here.

However, too often I see folks in all sorts of industries, especially technology, use the 80–20 rule as an excuse for doing less activity and being less creative. It comes up in conversation like, “we need to increase our marketing leads — what can we do that hits the 80–20 rule since we don’t have much time and budget?” Or, “we’re not cranking out features fast enough for this product release — let’s figure out the 80–20 rule for which to build so we can go ahead and call this done”.

The Efficiency Danger Zone

While these lines of thinking are seemingly economical and efficiency-minded and seek to achieve the elusive “biggest bang for the buck,” they often result in two very bad side effects:

  • Team members put in 20% effort expecting 80% quality (rather than 80% results). This is bad because (1) your team isn’t fully committed to a tactic, (2) it allows them to assume that B- work is satisfactory, and (3) the team assumes that 80% quality is the same as 80% of the metrics being achieved. This results in consistent underachievement.
  • Team members assume that because they are only putting in 20% of their energy/time into something, they can spend the other 80% energy/time working on other things. This mentality results in constant distraction. Next time you are working with your team, look at what they are actually doing every day. How much of their time and energy is overtly being spent on the things that don’t move the needle?

Also, by definition of the Pareto principle, 20% of the things you are currently doing are resulting in 80% of the results you see. So even if you double down on the 20%, you’d only see 80% of the results. How will you close the gap? You want to exceed expectations — not just meet them, and certainly not fall short of them.

Commit 100% and learn Quickly

Once you identify the things that create real results, COMMIT 100%+ of your effort into accomplishing them or you will fall short of your goal. Invest massive amounts of action on the things that matter, experiment with creative new approaches, and learn quickly which things aren’t working and remove them from your activities.

What innovative, aggressive marketing campaigns and tactics could you leverage to DOMINATE the competition? Spend 100%+ of your marketing team’s effort in achieving 100%+ results.

What features would make your product meet all the critical checkmarks (and none that aren’t critical) AND include differentiators that allow you to stand out and delight customers? Spend 100%+ of your product development team’s effort in achieving 100%+ results.

Leverage the 80–20 rule to reflect on that past and determine what activities were worthwhile and what were not. However, don’t use it as a tool to throttle effort or justify distraction! Now go make it happen. :)